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The Politics of the Veil

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“The French law of March 15, 2004 banned the wearing of conspicuous signs of religious affiliation in public schools. This law affects Jewish boys as well as Muslim girls wearing the veil. It is ridiculous to suggest that we discriminate against Muslim girls!” Joan Wallach Scott refutes this statement by the French Minister of Education in her book ‘The Politics of Veil. She avers that the law was supposedly universal, but its main target was Muslim girls adorning the headscarves or hijab as it is known in Arabic. The other group’ inclusion was to escape discrimination accusations. France is not alone in enacting these laws and the book mentions Belgium, Australia, Holland, and Bulgaria. This is despite the fact that the women that profess to wearing headscarves are a tiny minority of the population in these countries (Scott 3)

The other signs used to signify the religious Muslim faith by men are not banned, such as unique appearances like beards and loose clothing and sets of behavior namely prayers, food preferences and aggressive assertions of religious identity linked to activist politics. This clearly shows that there is an obsession with the veil (Scott 10) The law also ignores structural gender inequalities that are prevalent in Muslim family law that are allowed in these countries. Moreover, discrimination of the sexes is not uniquely Muslim, but can be found in patriarchal practices in the same countries that encourage oppression of women. Scott asserts that the ban is a result of a clash of civilizations between the Muslim and the western civilization. The French in their attempt to define their French identity in a progressively united Europe portrays Islam negatively. By objectifying Muslims as a fixed ‘culture’ and in conflict with their beliefs they create a myth of France as a lasting ‘republic.’ The ban is a reflection of French republicans attempt to counteract what appears to them as Islamic separatism (Scott 13)

American multiculturalism encourages diversity of culture and individuals, while French universalism celebrates sameness as the foundation of equality. Scott dismisses the French view of multiculturalism as a source of conflict, fragmentation, and political correctness. I am inclined to side with Scott’s view that this is a distortion. American multiculturalism encourages the interaction of different cultures with these cultures adopting practices from other cultures that prove beneficial and enriching to them. This creates a melting point of ideas, views and innovative ways of doing things. By accepting that all cultures are equal and none is above the other, American multiculturalism encourages cultural harmony, as there is no competition to prove the superiority of one culture over the rest. This welcoming of different cultures is one of the major reasons America has developed into such a superpower. Every culture finds a society that welcomes and accepts them as different, but equal members of the same society. Hence, they naturally thrive and contribute immensely to the development of the American society. With their success, they attached to the country and do not have to be forced by laws to be patriotic or see themselves as a part of the American society (McIlwain and Caliendo 80).

The American dream that attracts people from different backgrounds and cultures is a result of this multiculturalism. The American democracy that is the envy of the rest of the world is an offshoot of the same multiculturalism as individual cultures and their contribution to the national fabric are accepted. The American music and entertainment industry is an example of this multiculturalism. The African Americans have contributed to the evolution of rock and roll and other genres of the popular music culture. This would not have been possible with restrictions to conform to a certain set of behavior or culture (McIlwain and Caliendo 81).

The universalism of the French that propagates sameness discourages the exchange of ideas and cultural practices from people of different backgrounds. By suppressing one culture, there is a risk of alienating members of that community. Homogeneity discourages innovation and freedom of expression (McIlwain and Caliendo 84). Despite the French practice of assimilation, the descendants of the North Africa who migrated to France have a stronger affinity with their home countries than to France. Naturally, when you try to strip an individual off his primary culture and force him to accept a universal culture, you breed resentment and rebellion as he tries to justify his culture. The major reason the North African Muslims feel left out by the French society is because their perception that the French society does accept their cultural identity. The riots that occurred in the French suburbs were a result of this feeling of alienation. The more the French take hard line stance against the practices of these Muslims, the more it will remain a source of conflict (Bowen 56).

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